This is the rough draft of a presentation I have been asked to give to a class of my graduate school peers at West Chester University next week. My faculty advisor asked me to give a talk about my recent travels in Somalia. We’re all working on master’s degrees in history or genocide/holocaust studies.
In my case, I’ve recently discovered I’m not the European History MA candidate I thought I was but apparently I’ll be studying World History, with an emphasis with Africa, followed by minor fields in the Middle East and China.
My true interest is post colonial Francophone Africa, and how the ramifications of European colonialism have an impact on contemporary issues regarding the overlap of Africa, the Middle East, and terrorism. Islam has become the new communism as the dangerous ideology the West must destroy.
Life circumstances have forced me to move away from a successful 15-year career in local print journalism. But my interest in information, sharing information and researching perspectives on the world has led me toward an eventual Ph.D.
My career in journalism featured a variety of restructurings and lay-offs. When perpetually faced with a shifting marketplace you are forced to face your fears and your complacency. Every small event in life can lead to an unforeseen path. For me, I turned my focus toward my daughter and part-time professional work. A friend steered me toward hosting a French exchange student which led to me enrolling in an undergraduate French class to see if I still had the language I once majored in rolling around in my head.
That class opened my eyes to my love of academia. It also exposed me to the “Muslim problem” in France. And I made new friends.
Although I had a bachelor’s degree in English/French from Moravian College, I enrolled for a second bachelor’s in International Affairs from Lafayette College. It would be the perfect way to see if I could balance life, school, work and child. Plus it would give me academic credentials in fields I knew about from my journalism experience: politics and economics. I just never anticipated that I would develop an affinity for history.
Up until this point, I was a total French whore. I visited France for a month in 1995 and fantasized about a return to Paris. It was 2010.
My part-time professional job imploded. I developed severe anemia that left me lying on the living room floor at three in the afternoon until my five-year-old could make a cup of coffee for Mommy. I got a job in retail, because I didn’t have the strength for professional work. I wanted to punch a time clock and go home.
Around this time an old friend from college the first time reconnected with me via Facebook. He offered to take me to Paris. He felt sorry for the rough patch I had hit in life and he had the ability to make my return-to-Paris dream a reality. We went to Paris for the weekend between my orientation for my new job and my first day of training. There were twelve of us in that group at orientation, and we had to introduce ourselves. We were asked to share something random about ourselves. I remember saying, “I’m Angel and I leave for Paris tomorrow.”
M and I had a great time on that trip. I was in a history seminar on 20th Century French Identity and the Muslim problem and religious history in France was a key component. My travels in Paris had included a visit to public Muslim prayer in the streets. I went to ethnically diverse neighborhoods where the European Paris I remembered did not exist. What I found was a multicultural Paris swimming with Africans, Asians, Indians, gypsies and Arabs. I recently had a poem published in StepAway magazine about this revelation.
My studies kept leading me to Algeria, and I became convinced that the complex issue of religion in France should not be one of the French against Islam, but the French addressing their stereotypes of Muslims created during the colonization of Algeria. The no headscarves in schools law and later the anti-niqab law focused on visible Islam, but the issue was French perpetuation of the 19th century prejudice that Muslims were inferior people. These stereotypes came from the Algerian colonial project. This became my honors project.
I am typically afraid of my own shadow. But it was around this time that M suggested a research trip to Algeria. His visa never came through. Mine did.
So we did an immigrant’s journey instead. We started in Paris, fly to Tunis (visited the ancient ruins of Carthage) and finished the voyage with a few days in Marseille soI could see the Arab influence. It opened my eyes.
I will always have a soft spot in my heart for France, after all I have read the 1905 law on the separation of church and state and the constitution of the Fifth Republic in the original French. But setting foot in North Africa changed me. There was such a crazy blend of European influence and African beauty. From fresh baguettes covered with flies and soup made of lamb sausage and harissa (known as ojja) to the diversity of the architecture… We had arrived in Tunisia on the one-year-anniversary of the abdication of President Ben Ali and the initiation of the Arab Spring. And we had done that by accident. The streets were teaming with people, citizens shot fireworks off balconies, and a random North African guy grabbed my ass.
I had certainly gone beyond my comfort zone. And I started to realize that sometimes the thing that scares you most is the thing you most need to do.
My next academic interest became Djibouti. After the Algerian War for Independence (which ended in 1952, an abrupt and tragic decolonization that led to the more-or-less overnight displacement of a million French people and caused, in my opinion, the psychological issue that has further exploded into the contemporary “Muslim problem” in France), the French moved their primary military presence in Africa to the horn, to the small colony of Djibouti, a strategic point between Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia.
France had a conscript army until 1999. This means that when the French left Algeria, a multitude of the next couple generations of men served their military service in Djibouti. M had visited Djibouti just prior to the original trip to Paris he and I took. I begged him to take me to Djibouti. He did. In April 2014. During the beginning of the hot season. When I had a broken right hand in a brace. For a side trip, we did Yemen. Old Sana’a. Where I discovered they love to climb to roofs.
I loved it. We went to Moscow and Siberia in 2015. The Siberia trip was a one day visit for pizza. (Stories about all these trips can be found on this web site.) I have literally walked through what felt like good-block, bad-block, reminiscent of communist era Russia. And ridden some amazing old subways that are more than 100 years old.
This year we returned to Djibouti. A war has since broke out in Yemen so while the State Department may frown upon my visit there, I am so glad I saw it when I could. (And for the record, I technically did an internship for the State Department. I worked in communications at USAID.)
Somewhere along the line, I said I would visit Somalia. So we did Mogadishu during our January trip. It’s strange to visit places where you become the one who doesn’t speak the language or have no ability to read. It’s surreal to be escorted everywhere by men with machine guns. But it also teaches you how much of the world lives and why knowing what happens around us— knowing our history— is so important.
The plane on which we traveled between Djibouti and Mogadishu was the same exact plane where a suicide bomber killed himself and blew a hole in the plane. That happened less than two weeks after we left. A week after we left there was a hostage situation at Lido Beach, our first destination when we arrived in Mogadishu.
But look at what’s happened recently in Paris, Turkey, Brussels. A house caught fire in the middle of my block and took out three neighboring homes. The weekend before I left for Africa, I rescued someone from a heroin overdose in my own house. I broke my ankle in August walking down the street to buy a salad. Safety is an illusion.
M handles the arrangements for our trips. He’s headed to Syria next week and while he invited me to join him, I declined. Safety is one of the reasons, but not the most important to me. I have faith in his research and contacts. He’s been doing this a long time. You can’t be careless, but “adventure tourism” is a real thing. As historians and academics, we have to remember where our perspective comes from and that we can’t rely on the media for our viewpoints. If you aren’t sure of your sources, sometimes you need to tackle it yourself.